MELBOURNE — Thrill-seeking tourists could soon get to catch a ride on an armored personnel carrier, hop aboard an Abbot FV433 self-propelled artillery and drive the tank-like vehicle along a half-mile wooded trail off of John Rodes Boulevard.
For an additional charge, the diesel-engine behemoth could crush a junk vehicle — all to the consternation of some homeowners in the adjacent Hammock Trace Preserve subdivision.
The Melbourne City Council appears poised to approve a zoning permit and site plan for Tank America, LLC next month. The Melbourne company hopes to operate military vehicles with non-functioning weapons on 33 leased acres at the western terminus of Ellis Road.
Tank America would offer Florida's lone "drive-a-tank" experience, said Scott Benjamin, company co-founder and an assistant professor with the Florida Institute of Technology's Nathan M. Bisk College of Business.
Tank America's proposal: Up to six customers at a time would ride a 2.5-ton Abbot FV432 armored personnel carrier to a trail staging area. There, two customers would enter the artillery vehicle. One would drive, and top speed would be limited to 10 mph.
A Tank America employee would ride along, guide the driver, and use a "kill switch" to shut off the engine, if needed. The company hopes to offer about 20 trips per day. Entry-level packages would cost about $350.
“This will bring visitors to the area. It will have an economic impact. It will be a tourist destination. It will also be a destination for workplace events and training events, things like that," Kimberly Rezanka, a lawyer representing Tank America, told the city council last week.
"This is a redevelopment project. The property has been vacant for two years,” Rezanka said.
However, Hammock Trace Preserve resident Steven Peacock told council members he was shocked when he heard about the tank proposal. And he and his wife have suffered restless nights because they have a 15-month-old son.
“When I go trick-or-treating with him in a couple of years, I don’t want to hear squealing tanks or have diesel exhaust coming our way," Peacock said from the public-comment podium.
"And I also don’t want to turn on the news in a couple of years and hear about a kid that ends up in the path of a tank because they were chasing their dog that got loose,” he said.
Council members voted 6-1 to approve the first reading of Tank America's zoning permit and site plan. Betty Moore cast the no vote. A second, final reading is scheduled for June 13.
The closest Hammock Trace Preserve home is 388 feet from the proposed tank trail, city records show. City Hall planners — who have raised concerns about noise and dust — will develop a list of potential requirements for council consideration, including:
• Let Tank America operate during a one-year trial period, after which council members would evaluate operations.
• Keep the wooded buffer intact between the subdivision and the tank trail.
• Use a water truck and mulch along the tank trail to mitigate dust.
Zoned for light industrial use, the 33-acre parcel is a former National Guard armory that houses an 18,151-square-foot building. The landowner is State Rep. Thad Altman, R-Indialantic.
The Tank America idea was hatched by Benjamin and one of his former students, John Kinney, who earned his master’s degree at Florida Tech. They checked out Drive A Tank in rural Kasota, Minnesota, and researched the topic.
“This is phenomenal. This is a blast,” Benjamin said of the ride they took in Minnesota. “We thought Brevard County would benefit by having some type of themed tank-driving attraction as well.”
Driving a tank is similar to driving a lawn tractor, Benjamin said.
“What’s interesting is that it’s legal to purchase a tank, but the U.S. military doesn’t sell any of its surplus military equipment like a tank,” Kinney said. “You are able to get tanks from the British. We get the tanks from England. They’re demilitarized for ATF standards and then we ship them into the country.”
During a sound test, Councilman Paul Alfrey said he spent 45 minutes to an hour at Hammock Trace Preserve and he could not hear the tank from the homes — though could hear traffic from Interstate 95 and a neighborhood motorcycle. He said he does not believe noise will be a factor.
“I assure everyone that, if there is an issue, we would shut it down if it becomes a problem. But I don’t think we can go on speculation and what-ifs and that. We have to look at the facts. And again, being out there, I was shocked how quiet that tank is," Alfrey said.
However, Hammock Trace Preserve resident Jason Gress asked council members if they would want this business within 500 feet of their family homes.
“Say the sound is fine. But when a prospective buyer looks at my neighborhood to buy a home for their family, and they see in the aerial view that it’s next to Tank America — a militarized tank driving experience — are they really going to purchase my home even if it’s just a perception of the noise nuisance, vibration levels, safety concerns for their children or their pets?” Gress asked.
Altman told the city council that the wooded 33-acre property contains wild pecan, oak and palm trees. He said the tank project would preserve this habitat — but if the land is sold, a developer could clear-cut the site and construct a shopping center or car dealership.
“We feel that this is going to maintain the beauty of the neighborhood. And they’re going to be able to look at those beautiful oak trees and that green space for a long time to come," Altman said of Hammock Trace Preserve residents.